This week we’re talking about a concept from Martha Beck’s fabulous book, Finding Your Own North Star (which I highly recommend) – the idea of the social and essential selves. Martha’s take on this is that we all have these two selves: the essential self, which is the fundamental essence of your personality, and the social self, which is the various skills, behaviors, and traits you’ve picked up along the way to survive in your own social world. Both are fundamentally critical to living the best life you possibly can – your essential self knows what you truly love, and your social self has the skills to help you on the path to whatever that love may be.
Problems can arise, however, when your social self is in charge and is not hearing the directions your essential self wants to give. What Martha highlights in her book is that the essential self does not speak verbally; it nonverbally says “NO” by sucking out your energy, making you forget critical info, getting you sick, throwing you into a terrible mood, getting into addictive behaviors, messing with your sleep, and fun things like moments of social suicide. Basically, the essential self will do its level best to hijack you when you are on the wrong path and desperately tries to get your attention. Sometimes, though, our social selves are so dominant that we can ignore even the most blatant essential self signs. I’d like to give you an example from my own life, as this particular concept was one of the most freeing things I’d ever heard. You can read some of this in the About Liz page, since it truly was what changed my life, but I’d like to tell a little bit more of the background here.
At that point in time, I was working in accounting, which my essential self passionately hated. My social self had long ago decided accounting was a very safe, respectable, dependable profession that would pretty much guarantee job opportunities throughout my whole life. My social self was dead on about this. I attended one of the top five accounting schools (by accident, really, but I’ll take credit for it now), slogged through classes I loathed, and then decided that I would get ANOTHER degree, just to ensure that I had the best possible preparation for this incredibly safe life path I had planned for myself. I then joined a local CPA firm; my social self was determined to get me my CPA certificate for the maximum possible safety in my profession.
Looking back on this time, I see how my essential self was just screaming at the top of her lungs to get me off this path, but I could not hear her at all. Folks, I barely attended class, and to this day I’m not really sure how I graduated. I’m crediting it mostly to my social self’s skills at cramming and test taking. I made no friends in my accounting classes, and no friends in my Master’s program – at all. The lifelong friends I made during this time were solely from my accounting information systems classes, which my geek essential self loved. The only information I retained from this time was related to information systems. I can still tell you the third normal form of database design, but I can’t tell you jack about any Financial Accounting Statement (standard? I can’t even remember what FAS stands for.) I gained eighty pounds in six months and barely noticed. Finally, by the time I was at the CPA firm, I was sleepwalking. One day, without any kind of backup job, I walked in, and said something like “Everyone seems miserable here, I hate it, and I quit.” My essential self was fed up with me, and decided it was time for drastic action!
Several years later, I read Martha’s book, and had a lightning moment of clarity – I was NOT some kind of odd self-sabotaging freak who destroyed everything she worked towards. I simply had an essential self that was not going to let me live a life that was not meant for me, no matter how safe and socially respectable that life looked. Then, making the best decision I have ever made in my life, I vowed to use all the hard work, dedication and endurance of my social self in service of my essential self. I still worked in accounting, but now it was to finance my healing journey, not to satisfy some kind of unspoken social pressure. And that made all the difference.
This week, I’m inviting you to just consider how your essential self may be speaking to you. Perhaps your chronic lateness to a job you detest is not self-sabotage. Maybe your complete inability to remember the name of anyone in your Bible Study is not a sign of early dementia. We’ll get into how the essential self says “YES” soon, but for the moment, I’d like to just invite you to notice the areas of your life where that essential part of you is saying “NO” and consider the possibility that he/she might be completely on your side.